Who Says Online Shopping Is Killing Stores? Not Joe Bell

NILES, Ohio — Major investments by Lordstown Motors to manufacture electric trucks, a joint venture between General Motors Co. and LG Chem to build a battery cell plant, and TJX Companies Inc.’s distribution center in Lordstown will jolt retail development in Trumbull County, according to property experts.

The companies and thousands of projected jobs also kept Meijer Stores Ltd. from walking away from plans to open stores in Austintown, Boardman and Niles when GM announced it was closing its Lordstown Complex, according to Joe Bell, spokesman for the Cafaro Co., which owns the Eastwood Mall Complex. 

“They were spooked about the whole GM thing last year. They were thinking about pulling out of this entire market, in other words, all three locations,” Bell says. “It took a little bit of hand holding to help them understand that we weren’t plummeting into the Great Depression again here.” 

Meijer, a privately owned and family-operated chain, realized the area has a diversified labor force and job market beyond the auto industry, Bell says. Construction is underway at Meijer’s Boardman location.

“We’re still chugging along with Meijer for their deal [in Niles],” Bell says. “Now we’re moving in the right direction with them again. Presently, they’re focusing on the construction in Boardman.”

The plan is for Meijer to move into the former Super Kmart in the Howland Commons portion of the mall complex. Meijer Stores Ltd. purchased the property in 2018. 

Other than Meijer, Bell says new developments are in the works at the mall complex that will bring more jobs and offer more consumer shopping, food and service-oriented consumer choices. The Eastwood Mall Complex is the epicenter of retail development in Trumbull County. 

While retail’s traditional definition of going to a store to buy a tangible item, clothes or shoes still exists, Bell says the definition has expanded to operations that sell services, restaurants, and food specialty shops and trendy entertainment ventures. 

An example of a trend venture is Yo! Crash, a business inside the mall that offers a unique service where customers can relieve their frustrations by breaking or destroying items. Safety equipment is provided. This type of business is also known as rage, smash or anger rooms.

These options have expanded retail experiences at the mall, mixing niche stores among the anchor stores such as Macy’s and J.C. Penney. Bell says Blush Spa & Gift Boutique is an example of a niche experience. 

Michelle and Donald Beauchene opened Blush on the Square in downtown Warren nearly three years ago, which expanded into a second location nearly four months ago at the former Things Remembered store at the mall.

The spa offers a variety of massages, facials, skin treatments, waxing services and a salt/halo therapy room. Because of a larger space, the mall location has a nail service and an oil bar where customers can create mixes. 

Yo! Crash and Blush were finalists in the mall’s Small Shop Showdown last year. Michelle Beauchene says friends encouraged her to enter the contest. The couple had less than a week to assemble a business plan and other required paperwork. 

“We didn’t win, but the Cafaro team came to us and said they loved our concept and encouraged us. I wanted to expand the oil business and here we are,” Beauchene says. “I never in a million years thought [we’d] have two locations.”

Dan Crouse of Platz Realty says  blending retail, entertainment and niche services is the vision that has made the Cafaro Co. one of the most successful retail marketers in the country. “The companies that succeed, like Cafaro, Target, Boscov’s and Walmart don’t change the customer experience. They may tweak it, but they don’t change their vision,” he observes.

Other projects in the near future, Bell says, include a new restaurant that will be announced soon

“There’s interest in the Gander Outdoor location from another sporting goods concern,” he continues, adding that the sporting goods store is a familiar name. 

Gander Outdoors reopened the former Gander Mountain, which filed for bankruptcy in March 2017. The company was repositioning toward the sale of recreational vehicles, service, parts and accessories. That plan never materialized in Niles and store closing signs were posted on doors just before Thanksgiving last year.

“We didn’t want to turn that into a used RV lot,” Bell says. The 61,320-square-foot-store near Texas Roadhouse at the corner of Niles-Cortland and Mines roads closed before its lease expired in March.  

Bell says Boscov’s department store, which is taking over spaces formerly occupied by Sears and Tilt, is set to open in October. The store sells clothing, jewelry, appliances, toys and in-house candy. It is expected to employ 300 full- and part-time workers.

The growing retail at the mall defies what Bell calls a myth, that online shopping is killing bricks-and-mortar retail. Stores such as Kohl’s, Macy’s and Target are working with, not against, Amazon. Kohl’s is now an Amazon return center. Others are expanding in-store pickups for online shoppers. 

“These stores are embracing it because it has created an opportunity for people to walk into their stores and they can offer coupons or display that may result in in-store purchases. They call it ‘showrooming,’ ” Bell says. 

Amazon is searching for venues in our area. Asked if the mall is working to offer an Amazon return space, he responds, “We’ve had discussions.”

Lordstown’s economic development is exciting not just for the region, but also the trickle down effect to other companies, Bell says.

“All those different industries do a lot to create wealth in a community. When you have consumers, then you have the need for places like a shopping center. A retail center is reliant on the community that surrounds it.”

Pictured: Joe Bell is the director of corporate communications for the Cafaro Co.